Berwick Coates talks about his magisterial debut The Last Conquest: 1066

Richard Lee

Unknown-108RL: Fascinating book: at first view it looks to be about a battle, and we might be expecting a mostly military novel – but really it is more about a clash of peoples, and a chance of history, with a wide cast of characters who are by no means all warriors. Indeed it is quite a philosophical, optimistic novel. I detected three main story strands. Can you tell us first about Gilbert of Avranches, and his relationship with Gorm Haraldson’s household. How do you use this to help us understand Hastings?

BC: I like the suggestion that it is a ‘philosophical’ novel. I certainly intended to write more than a plain ‘blood-and-thunder’ adventure story. For a start, that has been done many times before. Secondly, this is arguably the greatest and most decisive battle in our history, and deserves more than the pure ‘b-and-th.’ treatment. It is what 1812 is to Russia and the Civil War is to the USA.

I also like the idea that it is an ‘optimistic’ novel. Insofar as I try to show the positive as well as the negative sides of the characters, I guess it is. War is a depressing business, but the human spirit can, and does, rise above it.

Gilbert? Well, I needed a thread, a continuity man. Somebody has to come on the stage first. Every army needs scouts, so that much was easy. Characters need to develop, so if I made him ‘undeveloped’ at the outset, I had plenty of leeway for ‘development’. I was writing about both sides, so I had to find a way of involving them with each other – dramatically. If I couldn`t do that, I might as well have written two historical novels and have done with it – one Norman and one English. So Gilbert, being Gilbert, makes mistakes, and gets himself in trouble. The Saxon family get him out of it because they have no choice. Once that is done, one can weigh in with a familiar idea – that each side finds it has things in common with the other – the farm background, the dogs, the age. Gilbert and Edwin like each other; why would they not? And it was not stretching belief to have Edwin understanding French, after his time on a Norman-owned estate and his summer in Normandy in 1064, when he fell in love.

Once you have established Gilbert`s debt to Gorm`s household, you have a steady reason for his continued concern for it. You have tied both sides together.

Does it help us to understand Hastings? Militarily, probably not. But humanly, yes. War does this. Remember the camaraderie between soldiers in the trenches only thirty yards from each other? ‘Our friends the enemy’. Even Wilfrid, who thinks all Normans are ‘bastards’ and who spends the whole battle-day killing them, understands Gilbert and Ralph at the end.

Unknown-110RL: The second story strand is that of the leaders – the chancers. I am clear which of William or Harold you prefer, but it’s also apparent you admire both. Tell us about them.

BC: They were well matched. They knew each other. They had almost certainly met when William visited England in 1051, and they had spent several months continually in each other`s company in 1064, after Harold had been shipwrecked in Normandy and had become half guest, half prisoner at William`s court (there may be another novel in that too). They understood and respected each other.

Each had a formidable military reputation. Most people know Harold only as the loser with the arrow in his eye. Try looking up his record in the twenty years before Hastings. And William had been Duke since 1035, and people know him only as the victor at Hastings. Try looking up his record too – it is astounding.

The period is alive with remarkable men – William, Harold, Harald Hardrada of Norway, Robert the Guiscard in Italy and Sicily, El Cid in Spain. To say nothing of non-military figures like Hugh of Cluny, Lanfranc of Pavia, Hildebrand. You can`t write about them all – well, not to that extent of detail. Pity.

I chose those two because they are rivals, and because they are closest to home. And perhaps just a little because, as I said in the Dedication, they were the subject of my very first history lesson at the age of seven. So, like James Whistler with the picture of his mother, I have in a sense been at it all my life.

RL: The third strand is what I’d call the mercenaries’ story – the quirkily attractive Taillefer and Sandor, and the differently loathsome Capra and Fulk. What led you to write these characters?

BC: I needed some light relief. The darkest dramas need that, probably more than most. Shakespeare always kept that in mind. All armies needed minstrels to keep them cheerful. William needed an expert to handle the transport and care of all those horses. So Taillefer and Sandor are perfectly believable. Indeed the name ‘Taillefer’ actually pops up in a later chronicle of the battle.

And, conversely, all good comedy has a strain of tragedy in it. Taillefer knows his days are numbered, and he knows he plays a part all the time. Sandor, for all his stories and his good cheer, is an exile from his beloved Hungary – ‘ah, to be sad in Hungary’.

Any good story needs a good villain. It is difficult to conjure up readers` interest in pure virtue. Well, why not have two villains for the price of one? One plain-and-simple dirty rotter, and then one laid-back, dark, leisurely, unfathomable, chilling character – who nevertheless is a splendid soldier. ‘They do not come any better than Bloodeye,’ said his sergeant Florens. And he should know.

RL: I believe your agent pitched this story as The Battle of Hastings written as The Longest Day. Is that how you conceived of it when you started writing?

BC: No, not in so many words. That was Jim Gill`s (my agent’s) idea. But I think it was a good one. Flattering, of course, but a good idea. I wanted to write about the Battle of Hastings, but I also wanted to write about the people who fought it, and whose lives were swallowed up by it. So I wanted to convey the epic nature of it – the big picture if you like. But I also wanted to go up close – to the very blades of grass on the hill and the sweat on a miller`s brow – the small picture. I wanted it both ways.

RL: The finale of the battle was suitably bloody. Did you enjoy writing the battle scenes? Were they the culmination of what goes before, or do you see them as more of an arbitrary outcome?

Unknown-111BC: It must always be satisfying to write a fast narrative about ‘fast’ events, and to that extent you are pleased when you get it right. It has to move, and I am gratified when people tell me that the battle indeed ‘moves’. If I did get it right, a lot of that may be explained by my military experience during National Service. It was a long time ago, but, take it from me, you don`t forget your National Service. And though much of what you went through you may, at the time, have looked forward to forgetting, the fact is that you don`t. And no experience is ever wasted.

They were the culmination in the sense that everybody knew that a battle was going to happen, and it was only a matter of time. So there was nothing arbitrary about it. I certainly did not intend to write a character study for ‘Part One’ and a bloodfest for ‘Part Two’. I wanted an organic and dramatic whole. You must carry the reader right through without his knowing that there is any ‘transition’.

RL: What do you think drove William over the sea to Hastings, to risk all on one battle?

BC: I doubt if he would have been able to answer that if he had been asked it in an interview. In a sense his whole life was a preparation for it. Certainly the evidence seems to show that he had it in his mind ever since he had visited England in 1051, and the Confessor, who had no children of his body, had promised him the crown. Well, that`s the story William told, and, if you had a story like that to tell, you`d stick to it, wouldn`t you?

He was a survivor, a coper, a winner. He had had to be. Ever since he had come to the ducal throne, he had suffered from neighhours or family members trying to get rid of him. He had also had the stigma of illegitimacy to contend with – difficult for us, perhaps, to understand in the ‘enlightened’ days of the 21st century. He had been leading men in battle since his mid-teens. Of course he had an eye to the main chance. Of course he was a gambler, an adventurer. Life to him was a series of opportunities; if you wanted to survive, you took them.

It has been said of Alexander the Great that he invaded the Persian Empire, and destroyed it, because it never occurred to him not to. Well, perhaps, after 1051, a similar remark could be passed about William and England. Mind you, his barons were not so consumed with the idea; they took a deal of persuading.

RL: I gather there is a prequel to this story planned, featuring Stamford Bridge. How is that progressing? What different England are you hoping to show in that?

Berwick Coates' account of his ten weeks' basic training in National Service.

Berwick Coates’ account of his ten weeks’ basic training in National Service.

BC: Quite nicely, actually. (Though of course some gremlin or other may be waiting to jump out of the woodwork.) I knew I had a year to produce it. After the time spent on reading, I knew had would have about six months to produce about 120,000 words. Simple arithmetic – 20,000 a month. I am pleased too say that, so far, I have been able to maintain that momentum. Whether it is any good – ah, that is for my editor and agent to offer a verdict.

A different England? Well, there`s got to be more of it, for the simple reason that there will be no Normans to talk about. Norwegians will be around, of course, but I shall have to move around England a lot more. Perhaps one surprise readers will get is that ‘England’ then did not mean the same as ‘England’ does now. A third of England – maybe more – was Scandinavian in origin. Think of the implications of that for Harold facing a Scandinavian invasion.

Secondly, there was Harold`s family – six brothers. A mother. Wives, mistresses, queens, sisters. Quite a family saga is waiting to be written about. As with TLC, it is not all ‘battle and bloodshed’, though of course, as with TLC, it is the climax; it has to be.

RL: What do you find the most useful skill, or trick, or other method of touching back to the past: so that you feel and see the things that are so long passed?

BC: First, the obvious barrier – we are talking about things that happened nearly a thousand years ago. How can we possibly know? The short answer is we can`t. The best we can do it show our readers, in effect, two things. One is that so much of people`s lives then was similar to ours. The other is to show that so much of their lives was different from ours. And all the time you try to persuade. You are half line-spinner, half advocate. And don`t let them know what you are up to.

There are several ways. The obvious one is to do one`s homework – the facts, as the man said. Wide reading. I think what has helped me is the fact that I have been teaching history for fifty years, one way and another. If you want to learn a subject, teach it. I have always read widely about history, for the simple reason that I like it. If nothing else, it has helped me to avoid errors. Put stupidly, I hope none of my characters is seen wearing a wristwatch.

That`s the negative side – avoiding mistakes.

Berwick Coates

Berwick Coates

The positive side? Trying to take a reader back into another century – and leaving him there. By that I mean don`t write anything that jars. For instance, there is a school of thought that says we must be ‘real’, ‘earthy’, ‘truthful’, give it to them straight from the shoulder. Plenty of sex and four-letter words, lots of modern idiom. I came across a sentence in a recent fashionable medieval hardback: ‘Got it in one.’

No. It jars. You can shock readers just as well by not inserting modern idiom in the name of ‘realism’. Moreover, I incline to the view that modernisms interrupt what the writer should be trying to do – make contact at a subconscious level. Your words must be chosen so that the reader is not conscious of them. He should barely be aware that he is reading. He is just ‘there’ – if you have done your job properly. I don`t think you do that by saying ‘Got it in one’.

An example: I was told only this morning that a friend had just read TLC, and was so taken with it that he insisted on reading some of it out loud to his wife. When he came to a certain passage, he broke down. He cried! All right, so that may be an extreme case, but I like to think that I got through to that reader at a subconscious level, and I don`t think I would have done it with four-letter words.

Lastly, get inside their mind. That`s the big one. How can we know what made them think the way they did? How much around them did they not talk about because it was so much a part of their life that it never occurred to them talk about it? If a historical novelist two hundred years hence wanted to write about our lives, how would he know that we cleaned our teeth every morning, because no diarist would think of writing ‘23rd April – cleaned my teeth this morning’?

RL: Is there anything particular you have learned in researching and writing The Last Conquest that you think we should know?

BC: Yes – firstly about the battle. The tendency is to think that, because it happened the way it did, it was bound to happen. Even more, that it should have happened like that. Not so. For the men who were there, it was anything but a foregone conclusion, and, for half of them at any rate, anything but a desirable outcome. Indeed, even for the winners, it was not all joy and triumph. As the Duke of Wellington said after the Battle of Waterloo, ‘The next most terrible thing after a battle lost is a battle won.’ As the Duke also said about Waterloo, ‘It was a damned close-run thing.’ Hastings was touch-and-go until almost the end.

Next, about the whole campaign. It is all too easy to suppose that William woke up one morning, felt at a bit of a loose end, and said, ‘I know, chaps, let`s go and conquer England. Who`s with me?’

That again is where my military experience was invaluable. Campaigns are complex affairs. Years of planning. Thousands of details, any one of which could go wrong and ruin the entire enterprise. The pressure on the commanders is enormous. I have tried to show this. It has incurred criticism from certain reviewers and other commentators, to the effect that the book is ‘slow’, till the battle starts. When it does start, they do concede, it jogs along pretty well. But the whole point of the early chapters, among other things, was to show that that was what war is – nothing much happening. But, if you look closely, the pressure is crushing. If you like, it is like watching a cricket match. I you want nothing but fours and sixes, you will be bored. But if you look for the subtleties, it is endlessly absorbing.

If you want nothing but thrills in fancy dress, then go where you can expect to get them. If you want history, character, and atmosphere as well, then we can accommodate you.


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